The Egyptian electoral commission’s decision to ban the country’s top three presidential candidates has made it very difficult to predict anything about the upcoming vote. However, once the initial shock from the surprise disqualification of Muslim Brother Khairat al-Shater, Mubarak right-hand man Omar Suleiman, and Salafi Hazem Abu Ismail dies down, we’re still dealing with the same electorate that in the November-January parliamentary elections gave nearly 40 percent of its vote to the Brothers and another 25 percent to the Salafis. Does this mean that the Brothers merely have to put up their backup candidate, Mohammed Mursi, and let him catch the Islamist wave in al-Shater’s stead? Probably not, actually – some recent poll numbers suggest that the Brother’s popularity was already in rapid decline, and that although their support may have been broad, it wasn’t very deep.
Islamist parties typically perform best in the first competitive elections after a long period of authoritarian rule. Religious parties may have a hardcore ideological base but that’s not where most of their votes originate. Instead, many voters see in the religious groups their best hope for a dramatic change from politics-as-usual. But inevitably, the Islamists must confront the same challenges as any other political force must, encountering resistance, searching for unlikely bedfellows, handing out plum posts to supporters, and making compromises. Because of this, they are bound to disappoint. Egypt’s Muslim Brothers were likely to lose support from the moment that Saad al-Katatni took the chair of the People’s Assembly and banged his gavel on national television, while outside, nothing was changed.
Even so, the evaporation of support for the Brothers – assuming the latest poll numbers are even close to accurate – is remarkable. Reports of a recent survey by the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Center suggest that some 45 percent of those who backed the Brothers in parliament won’t vote for it in the next elections. Al-Shater was the first choice of only 5 percent of voters.